They just don't make them like they used to, do they?
The modern athlete bears little resemblance to athletes of old. Top athletes of today are characterized by pompous attitudes as much as they are physical talent. A sense of entitlement becomes ingrained in youngsters before they even learn the fundamentals of their chosen sport. American athletics in particular are churning out spoiled, “me-first” athletes at an alarming rate.
The unfortunate truth is that boxing has done little to buck this trend. The fight scene is littered with aspiring pugilists who proclaim their greatness before they've mastered the art of a good jab. Think about how many times you've heard a fighter talk a heck of a game only to crumble in their first encounter with adversity.
It used to be that a fighter's reputation was earned where it mattered: between the ropes. Image wasn't everything, integrity counted for something, and pride made a fighter act like a fighter. No, that bygone era wasn't perfect. Corruption and fraud were around even then. Still, there was a degree of honesty and toughness that seemed much more prevalent a generation or two ago than at the present moment.
Now, it seems, all one needs to be a top contender is a good promoter and smart matchmaking. Oh, and a big mouth never hurts either, nor does a nicely scripted press conference scuffle.
Every once in a while, though, a fighter will come along who is a refreshing change, who is a throwback to those days gone by. Nowadays, fighters who are more substance than flash are rarities who stand apart from their peers. It is these fighters who best embody the old school mentality the entire sport needs to recall.
It is in this spirit that this list of old school fighters was compiled. The primary criteria considered for this list were toughness and attitude. These are fighters whom one can picture with little trouble plying their trade in the '50s, '60s, and '70s alongside like-minded warriors. There are certain invisible qualities about them that make terms like “prizefighter” more applicable than merely referring to them as “boxers.” Essentially, these are the fighters for whom boxing purists long for in the modern boxing world.
Before continuing, however, I feel it appropriate to offer a couple of preliminary disclaimers. The five fighters mentioned here are by no means the only fighters this author considers to be old school fighters. For the sake of brevity and diversity of personalities, the list was narrowed to these five. The original list was significantly lengthier, and the process of choosing only a few was quite difficult, since I felt like I was slighting some really fantastic examples of the virtues I was attempting to extol. So if you feel like I snubbed your favorite fighter, it was certainly not intentional. Odds are they made my list, and were probably one of the boxers I ruminated over as to whether I should include them or not.
Regardless of how you feel about these individual fighters, it is my hope that you don't lose sight of the true purpose of this article: to celebrate the virtues of a genuine, honest prizefighter which are, sadly, increasingly rare to the point where they have become the exception rather than the rule in boxing.
With that said, here are five fighters (in no particular order) who are throwbacks to another time.
Sure, the gladiator schtick might be a bit cliché, but at his core, Katsidis is all fighter. Katsidis fights with a forward-marching, free-swinging style that is reminiscent of modern legend Arturo Gatti. His brutal wars with Graham Earl and Czar Amonsot are required viewing for any boxing fan. If you haven't seen those yet, go to YouTube and look them up immediately; this article can wait.
As exciting as those fights were, it is Katsidis' only loss in twenty-four fights which best exemplifies why he is a throwback fighter. Against the ultra-crafty Joel Casamayor, Katsidis found himself in a nightmare scenario early in the fight. Down twice in the first round, it appeared that the Aussie just might be exposed as an overrated boy wonder.
Katsidis proved otherwise.
He not only survived, but rallied back to seize control of the fight, even dropping Casamayor in the sixth. Though his inexperience caught up with him, as did a huge Casamayor left, Katsidis' proved that heart and determination can sometimes make up for deficiencies in skill. One gets the feeling that if fights still went to the death, as they did in the days of gladiators, Katsidis would still be game. He may never ascend to the top echelon of the sport, but nobody will ever call Katsidis a coward.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Antonio Margarito was once considered the most avoided fighter in boxing. The Tijuana Tornado has an aura about him that would be best described as fearless and violent.
With Margarito, a boxing match is more than a mere athletic contest; it is a test of manhood. You get the sense that Margarito feels he is more man than his opponent every time he steps into the ring, and it's an assumption that is usually right on the money. He brings with him an old-fashioned mentality that boxing is not meant to be stylistic and pretty, but a no-nonsense, winner-take-all showdown. He showed this in his two beatdowns of Kermit Cintron, and even in his loss to Paul Williams, where Margarito seemed annoyed with Williams' reluctance to trade. He wore an expression that appeared to say “Isn't this supposed to be a fight?” With Margarito, anything less than a violent confrontation is simply child's play.
Though he may have lost some fights along the way, Margarito's never been beaten. There is a distinction between the two terms. Margarito brings with him a steely toughness that gets nurtured out of many modern fighters, a toughness that sets him apart from his contemporaries.
There is a lot to like about the undefeated middleweight champ. He's a big hitter who doesn't shy away from a real fight. If you need proof of that, review the tapes of his fights against Zertuche, Miranda, and Taylor.
Pavlik beats people up, pure and simple. Novices and experts alike can find the beauty in what Pavlik does. The guy is all business in the ring, which by itself is enough to consider him an old school fighter. The sense here is that it will take a lot to beat him, someone who can out-skill him and out-will him.
What is even more unique about Pavlik is his demeanor in and out of the ring. Pavlik's appeal has just as much to do with his humble, homegrown personality as it does with his punishing fists. In a sport where flash and trash usually equate to cash, Pavlik refuses to demean himself by partaking in such nonsense (though his pugnacious trainer, Jack Lowe, may be a different story). What's more, Pavlik's good-guy routine seems genuine, proving that a classy champion never goes out of style.
Vazquez may have gained most of his notoriety by virtue of his epic trilogy with Rafael Marquez (who, yes, was considered for this list), but his fights with Oscar Larios and Jhonny Gonzales proved he was a throwback well before the now legendary three fight stretch.
What is so remarkable about Vaszuez is that, as immaculately skilled as he is, his heart just might surpass his exceptional ability. Case in point, take a look at the first meeting with Marquez. Even in a losing effort, Israel Vazquez gave an example of courage for all fighters to study. Vazquez suffered a catastrophic nose injury early in the fight, but soldiered on to knock Marquez down and even control long stretches of the bout. Some may criticize Vazquez for quitting at the end of the seventh round, but those critics have never fought an opponent the likes of Marquez without the ability to breathe, which is precisely what Vazquez had done for several rounds.
Any questions about Vasquez' heart (which shouldn't have existed in the first place) were answered in the hastily arranged rematch, which occurred merely five months later. More than a few insiders were concerned that such a short interim between fights had not allowed Vazquez' surgically repaired nose to heal. Vazquez' willingness to take the rematch is a testament to his will and competitive spirit.
You know how the second fight ended. And the third.
Glen Johnson is perhaps the best example of what old school boxing is all about. The 39-year old Johnson has inconspicuously lingered among the light heavyweight elite for the better part of this decade. His stay atop the division has been a quiet one mainly because none of the other light heavies have ever really gone out of their way to fight the tough as nails Road Warrior.
Johnson's style hearkens back to the glory days of the sport. Though he doesn't do any single thing spectacularly well, Johnson is a consummate professional, always in shape and ready to throw down. Johnson is boxing's answer to a polygraph examination. Through steady, unrelenting pressure, Johnson eventually makes the truth come out of his opponents, with pretenders and contenders quickly sorted out. It's unlikely that any of Johnson's opponents will describe their encounters with him as an easy day at the office.
While this is all well-known to dedicated fight fans, the best example of Johnson's throwback qualities dates back well before his light heavyweight days, when he was an up and coming middleweight prospect. With a glossy record of 32-0, the untested Johnson got his first title shot against division boss Bernard Hopkins. In what proved to be a brutally one-sided fight, Hopkins gave Johnson a painful lesson in what it takes to be a champion. To date, this eleventh-round TKO remains Johnson's only stoppage loss.
This was the type of fight that destroys a young fighter's career. The usual result is a boxer whose confidence is shattered, never to be fully repaired. Had Johnson gone on to be damaged goods, it would have been understandable, but that wasn't the case. The loss to Hopkins, along with the other eleven losses on Johnson's record (many of which are questionable) have proved to be learning experiences which have made him a better fighter, and also serve as proof of Johnson's fortitude. Johnson defies modern boxing logic, proving that losses can be opportunities to grow rather than badges of disgrace. If only others would learn from Johnson's example.
In the world of the selfish, pampered modern day athlete, fighters like these make us proud to be fans and serve as notice that boxers stand apart from other athletes. Throwback fighters possess a certain intangible quality that will always endear them to us, a certain fistic honesty that transcends the nonsense which can be so thick in boxing. It is this honesty that keeps fighters and fans alike in love with the sport.